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Venus’ vicious vortex revealed

By James Dacey

The southern polar vortex of Venus

Courtesy: ESA/VIRTIS/INAF-IASF/Obs. de Paris-LESIA/Universidad del País Vasco (I Garate-Lopez)

The planet Venus may be named after the Roman god of love and beauty, but from what we know about our neighbouring planet, it appears to specialize in a particularly fiery sort of romance. It has a surface dominated by volcanism, and an atmosphere roiled by a runaway greenhouse effect, where sulphuric acid rains down amid a blitzkrieg of lightning strikes. It makes me think that the miserable sort of weather we’ve being experiencing in the UK of late is perhaps not so bad after all.

New research published yesterday in Nature Geoscience has shed more light on the tormented atmosphere of Venus. These images, analysed in the study, reveal that a vortex flow at the south pole of Venus is more chaotic than previously thought. The researchers, all based in Europe, have studied this region of the atmosphere using infrared images from the VIRTIS instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft. They were able to observe how the south polar vortex of Venus changes its shape day to day.

The upper panel of images show cloud motion at 63 km above the surface of the planet, and the lower images show clouds at the 42 km level. The researchers, led by Itziar Garate-Lopez at the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain, conclude that the south polar vortex is a long-lived and unpredictable feature. They say that the centres of rotation of these two different cloud levels are rarely aligned and that they wander erratically around the planet’s south pole with velocities up to 16 m/s.

If the dreaded time does arrive when we need to relocate to one of our neighbours, I think I’ll be boarding the Martian Express!

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